Death and I do not meet often, and when we do, we pass each other with a quiet nod. An acknowledgement that the person gone wasn’t too close to me this time, but someday death would brush by near enough that it would scar my heart. Change me. And one day, take me away.
On Tuesday, death passed by once more and this time, took my grandfather with her. He’d been sick and in pain for a while. His passing was met both with sadness and a little bit of relief. Watching him shrink and go silent was hard. The constant warnings that “this might be the last” were exhausting. No one can sustain that level of worry for long.
Grandpa said goodbye to me four times, though I said it five. The first time was on Family Day. My mom hosted lunch and my grandparents drove up to eat with us. He wasn’t doing well, I was told. Today would be the last goodbye. We ate, we chatted, and we played a game that I believe Grandma won. My boys ran around the house, swatting all of my mother’s pretty things with playful abandon.
There was a moment, then, when Grandma, Grandpa, and I were alone. Somehow the other seven people disappeared for just a second and Grandpa asked me to sing for his funeral. I knew they’d been planning it, but being confronted by the thought was uncomfortable. Not yet, I thought. Grandpa had his hand on my arm. It was warm; it still had strength in it. I said yes, but it was to something still far away.
“You know which song?” he asked. Yes, I knew.
And that was the first goodbye.
“Grandma wants everyone to come over.” This was the beginning of March. My sister and her boyfriend were on vacation, worried that they’d be gone when Grandpa died. But my sister didn’t know how important the vacation was. A ring was secretly accompanying her out of country.
I brought my kids to my grandparents’ condo. Again, they were drawn to the cases of figurines and the grandfather clock whose chimes had punctuated my childhood, especially the years that my children were now living. The chatter had celebration lilting through it. “I hear Stephanie has some news!” “When is the wedding?” “How did he propose?” The somber reason for the family visit was disguised by the excitement.
We ordered pizza with pineapple and sat around and chatted with one another, conspicuously avoiding the topic of death. I was chatting with Grandma and I remember looking over at Grandpa. He was sitting on the couch, starring off into space. He was tired. He looked, to me, like he could go at any moment. I hugged him goodbye and thought it’d be the last time.
But it was only the second goodbye.
The third goodbye was only mine. In the weeks leading up to Grandpa’s death, I had a dream. In it, our family was gathered together at my parent’s house and we were watching a video of memories made by Grandpa. He was there, the way that I remember him. He was laughing with the prickly salt and pepper hair he had in my teen years. He’d shown us some joke or another about someone I didn’t recognize. Something to make us forget what was coming.
At the end of our gathering, Grandma and Grandpa were leaving. I remember looking out the front door towards the end of the pavement and promising myself that I’d remember his walk out to the car. He was going where I could not follow. Then Grandpa pulled me in for a hug. I thought, we’ve said everything we need to say and there was a peace with that. But when he held me close, his kissed my cheek and said, “Come back to me, girl.”
I returned the hug and said, “I’ll see you soon, Grandpa.”
I didn’t get a chance to watch him walk out that door. Instead my dream ended in the hug. Then I awoke at 2:18 am on March 17 and I swore I could smell the hospital. But it was not the last goodbye.
By the time the fourth goodbye came, Grandpa wasn’t living at home anymore. He was bound to a hospital bed by an IV and pain medication. He’d said his final goodbye to food and showed me that man really didn’t have to live on bread at all. He spoke in only whispers. I went with my father and brought the kids with me, even though I was worried that it would mean a short visit.
I saw tears in Grandpa’s eyes when he saw me. No one had ever been so happy to see me that it brought tears to their eyes. I’ll never forget that.
The boys were on their best behaviour. I’ve never seen them stay up so late with so few tantrums. Eggs made sure to visit other residents of palliative care, but thankfully no one seemed to mind. He was also a huge fan of the walker that was in the room and enjoyed being pushed on it. Monkey tried to buy my aunt a trip to Costa Rica on her iPad.
I prayed with Grandma and Grandpa and kissed them each goodbye. This was the last time, I was sure. I was wrong again.
The final goodbye was hard. My parents had cancelled a long-anticipated trip so they could stay with Grandpa. Most of my aunts and uncles were there too. I’d never seen my extended family so often in such a short period of time. Everyone had paused their lives to be there for the ending of Grandpa’s.
Grandpa chewed on ice and the crunching made me smile. The way it was given to him by a spoon reminded me of the birth of Monkey. Brian had spooned ice into my mouth between pushes because I’d never been so thirsty in my entire life. Strange how the beginning of life is so similar to the end. I guess we pause our lives to witness both.
I proved that I wasn’t adult enough to be taken to a restaurant and I’m pretty sure the waitresses would be glad to never see me again. When we told Grandpa the story, he laughed. It was the last time I’d see him laugh. We played him a song that I’d sung at church the Sunday before and then we had to leave.
“That was beautiful,” he said. “I love you.”
Those were the last words I’d hear him say. The final goodbye.
Death changes us. It’s hard for those experiencing it and for us who are left behind. I watched my parents expend every ounce of energy they had in these past weeks. I saw Grandpa quietly diminish and Grandma holding her breath for the heartbreak that was coming, that had already come. I listened to aunts and uncles reminisce. Same with my parents.
There’s something about the end that reminds us of the middle. I wonder what stories left with Grandpa. What stories will only come to light because he’s gone. I look at the train set from his childhood that he gave to his oldest great grandchild and wonder what I’ll tell him about his great grandfather.
Grandpa’s gone, but I still see him sometimes. He’s there in the way my aunt, his only daughter turns her head. I hear him when my dad says “hmm.” He’s in my uncle’s laugh, in the way my other uncle holds his shoulders. I wonder where he is in my generation, my children’s. And I’m sure I’ll spot him when I’m least expecting it.